Fires are one sure way for Schenectady to rid itself of its many abandoned buildings, but hardly an efficient or safe way.
The city has been plagued by a rash of suspicious fires in abandoned buildings the past couple of weeks, and so far it has been lucky: There haven’t been any fatalities or serious injuries among firefighters, and no adjacent homes have been ignited. But a family living next to 942 State St. was forced to vacate its residence after Monday’s fire because of water damage. And in a city like Schenectady, with many of the houses built within a few feet of one another, the chances of a fire spreading are considerable.
Four of the five buildings that have caught fire since May 20 were abandoned, and in the latest two, the electricity had been shut off. Thus it seems obvious that the fires were started, either accidentally or on purpose, by people — people who most likely had no business being in the buildings.
In the case of 942 State St., neighbors told a reporter of seeing people frequently going in and out of the building, using it as a drug haven. And the fire in an abandoned ski shop at 738 Albany St. was apparently not its first. Or its second.
So it’s pretty clear the city isn’t doing a good enough job ensuring that its abandoned buildings are secured, so vandals, druggies and squatters of any other type aren’t able to get inside them and start fires.
This has been a continuing issue in Schenectady. One would have thought officials — including Mayor Gary McCarthy, who was on the City Council at the time — would have learned their lesson in 2007, when the old Brandywine School burned because vandals kept getting inside. The city lost a beautiful, historic building in that blaze and got stuck with a $750,000 demolition bill when the insurance company refused to pay because the city hadn’t properly secured the building.
The city doesn’t have the money to pay for these demolitions anymore, and it can hardly afford to risk firefighters’ or residents’ lives. It needs to develop some system for making sure vacant buildings stay secured, and follow it religiously. Residents also need to help out more by reporting any suspicious activity in vacant buildings to police. The houses, and lives, they might save by doing so could be their own.